June 2011


Sex before soccer

By Margaret Simons
Michael Ebeid, the new managing director of SBS. Courtesy of SBS.
Michael Ebeid, the new managing director of SBS. Courtesy of SBS.

There is possibility and burden in a name. When, more than 30 years ago, the Fraser government created the Special Broadcasting Service as the first multicultural public broadcaster in the world, few anticipated that in 2011 the question might be whether it was special enough.

“This mean-spirited, greedy little television station,” fulminated the Australian’s media critic Errol Simper recently. “A tasteless, asinine, lunatic little fringe station that would struggle to justify its existence were that existence to be seriously called into governmental question,” Simper continued, before admitting the “paradox” that it nevertheless produced some of the best television available in Australia. The support group Save Our SBS speaks in similar terms, which may be why SBS management wonders whether, with friends like that, it needs enemies. As always seems to be the case with public broadcasters given the passions they arouse, those who love SBS most are also its most virulent critics.

Not many countries have public broadcasters funded through the taxpayer’s purse. Hardly any have two. In 1978 the government saw SBS as a key piece of public infrastructure to support one of Australia’s greatest social experiments: the transformation from a white European nation to a multicultural, partly Asian, society. SBS arose from then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s belief that, with leadership, education and encouragement, Australians could overcome the fear of the stranger, and be the better for it.

Then as now, the charter of the existing public broadcaster, ABC, was broad enough to accommodate any bandwagon parked within it. SBS was to be different – special. Its charter stated that its “principal function” was to provide radio and television in multiple languages to “inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia’s multicultural society”. The words “all Australians” were important. It was never intended that SBS would be ‘ethnic TV’. Rather, it was conceived as creating a space in which new and old Australians could meet and learn about each other, as well as helping new arrivals to be incorporated into the Commonwealth.

The charter, however, moving on from its principal purpose, expanded outwards into ever broader phrases, finishing by enjoining the broadcaster to “contribute to the overall diversity of Australian television and radio services”, and “reflect the changing nature of Australian society, by presenting many points of view and using innovative forms of expression”.

Some of those who care most deeply about SBS argue that those phrases have become the parking lot, not so much for bandwagons as for juggernauts of commercial convenience. Since the early 1990s when SBS became a unique hybrid public broadcaster – taking advertising dollars as well as government money – multilingual material has disappeared from prime time on SBS1 to be replaced by mainstream fare, such as Top Gear, which has since gone to Channel Nine, and Mythbusters. Even Malcolm Fraser has said that SBS has lost its way, that it is now too mainstream.

What, then, is special about SBS, now its audience is predominantly white middle-class Australia? As one Channel Ten executive charmingly put it to me: “All the ethnics are watching Masterchef”. What is its continued claim on the taxpayer purse when anyone who wishes can download foreign language films from the internet, as well as news in any language? “Sex Before Soccer” is what the wags say the initials stand for. Is it only about art-house movies and The World Game? By seeking commercial income, has it abandoned its raison d’être?

Our second public broadcaster is at a turning point in its history. It has never been so neglected by government or so strapped for cash. Eighteen months ago it got a new chairman, Joseph Skrzynski, replacing the outgoing Carla Zampatti. Skrzynski was seen as signalling a change of direction – away from a high-end indie approach and back towards SBS’s core purpose, although Skrzynski himself describes this view of his agenda as an oversimplification and misunderstanding.

Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that the retiring managing director, the controversial Shaun Brown – who dramatically ramped up advertising on SBS – was to be replaced this month by Michael Ebeid. Ebeid’s appointment was greeted with a mix of puzzlement and sniping, including from those passed over for the job.

Most recently the director of corporate strategy and marketing for ABC, Ebeid has been a backroom boy, a name many in SBS and in Canberra had never heard before. Previously he has held senior management positions with IBM, Optus and Westpac, and was on the board of the subscription television industry association, ASTRA. So what does this appointment signal for SBS?

Ebeid faces an immediate and urgent challenge. SBS, like ABC, is funded on a triennial basis, with the next allocation to be announced in the 2012 budget. That means the next six months will be crucial in persuading the government of SBS’s claim to more funding. Can Ebeid, from a standing start, convince Canberra that SBS is special enough to deserve more? If not, the future relevance and power of this child of ’70s reformism could be at risk.

SBS began as a couple of experimental radio stations in Sydney and Melbourne, broadcasting in eight languages. By 1980 it was broadcasting in 47 languages and about to be joined by a television channel, 0/28. Now, like all broadcasters, it is fragmenting, spawning new channels and media presences. There are two television channels – the second created without any extra funding having been given for programming. There is a radio network in 68 languages, streaming and podcasting online, and two dedicated digital music channels – SBS Chill and SBS PopAsia. SBS Online records more than 1 million unique browsers per month, and there are two commercial subscription television channels, STVDIO and the World Movies Channel, which specialise in arts programming.

There is huge potential in investing further in SBS, but equally enormous risk. The advent of digital broadcasting and the internet mean SBS could, better than ever before, cater for its multicultural audience. Yet Shaun Brown is on the record as saying that funds are insufficient to allow the station to serve multilingual Australia as it should.

In recent weeks, headlines have suggested the station is in financial crisis. Brown rejects this. He says: “We are always tight. We are always balanced a little on the edge.” But others, speaking in confidence, describe the position as dire.

The same media innovations that open up opportunities for a multi-niche broadcaster also threaten its sustainability. It is more expensive to buy content, because so many multichannel broadcasters are competing to fill their airtime. At the same time, there is a proliferation of advertising real estate, meaning it is harder than ever to charge a premium price.

Chairman Joe Skrzynski says he has been misunderstood by those who see him as advocating a ‘back to basics’ approach; it is more complex than that. The new channels and the many digital media platforms “give us the opportunity to respond to our charter in a more nuanced way than previously”. Yes, most content – and all of that on prime time – on SBS1 is in English, but on the new SBS2, 76% is in other languages, including on prime time. SBS can be many things, says Skrzynski, but it is not a mass broadcaster. It aims to serve niches. He says that, if Australian broadcasting were a newsagent, ABC and Channels Seven, Nine and Ten would be the banner posters out the front; SBS would be the collection of specialist magazines down the back. What niches does it aim to serve, then, other than ethnic groups? Skrzynski nominates foreign films and documentaries. Could not that content be provided on any other organisation’s multichannels? Not, he says, with the “particular twist” of SBS’s charter.

It was in 2006 that Shaun Brown announced advertisements, which had until that time been confined to between programs, would be introduced into the middle of the shows. He insisted the move was necessary to improve news coverage and local drama.

The then Opposition Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy was scathing of the move, promising to redress it if in government. Now in government, Conroy has been silent on the issue. Action on the matter has been left to the Greens, who have proposed a bill to force ads back into the breaks between programs.

However, most commentators see the results of the 2009 funding round, the first of Labor’s terms in office, as reflecting government displeasure. ABC had suffered through the Howard years but was big enough to hunker down, re-allocate funds and battle through. In 2009 it did well, while SBS was left begging, the poor relation and with less room to move cash around internally than Aunty ABC. Brown says he would like to be remembered as the man who increased the broadcaster’s commitment to local drama and documentary but says that instead, “I suspect I will forever be remembered as the man who introduced advertising in the middle of programs. I think it has been successful but I am well aware that my critics would say, ‘Well, we don’t want you to be commercially successful.’”

Brown says the two forms of success are different sides of the same coin. When he arrived at the organisation in 2001, as head of television, he reviewed the schedule. What stuck out was the lack of Australian content. Before in-program advertising, he says, it had been possible to do it in short bursts and pockets. Only increasing commercial income made possible the sustained effort. Thanks to commercial income, SBS has been able to commission not one but three series of the award-winning drama East West 101. It has also screened Australian history documentaries such as Immigrant Nation.

Brown told a recent Senate estimates hearing that the five minute advertising break between programs had been rejected by advertisers. Too many people simply switched off or made a cup of tea. If SBS dropped in-program ad breaks, advertising revenue would be cut by two-thirds, leading to a $36 million shortfall. That means, he says, very little Australian drama, and no groundbreaking Australian documentaries. Be that as it may, Brown’s critics say his main failure has been in arguably the most important area of all – getting money from the government.

In the lead-up to 2009, ABC’s managing director Mark Scott adopted a canny strategic game of pitching ABC’s interests in terms of broader public policy. ABC3, the new children’s channel, for example, was sold as a way of driving uptake of digital broadcasting technology so the government could meet its target for switching off analog television.

Brown, on the other hand, pitched SBS’s claim on the basis of entitlement. Shortly before the crucial budget, he made a speech rebutting the argument that SBS should not ask for more government funding because its advertising income was going up: “Imagine that SBS is a widow with small children in a Dickensian workhouse. She barely feeds her family on a bowl of gruel a day and is grateful for it.

“One day she sells a posy of dried flowers for a penny and buys her children half a loaf of yesterday’s bread. That afternoon the overseer inspects the workhouse and sees the children with the stale breadcrumbs around their mouths. He peers over his round belly and says, ‘I don’t imagine you’ll be needing your gruel this evening!’

“Anyway, at the risk of emulating Oliver Twist, we are asking for more, because we can barely survive on what little subsistence we get and because there are vital new challenges to be met.”

It didn’t work. To put it mildly, portraying government as the bloated and heartless overseer in Oliver Twist didn’t help Brown cut mustard with Canberra, and his demand on the basis of need and entitlement cut no ice either. Brown admits today that this was his lowest point in the job; it was “a disappointment” and “particularly hard to stomach when the ABC did better”. He claims his intelligence was that SBS was well lined up until the global financial crisis swept budget projections off the map. Others say he had lost the race long before that.

Now, less than a year before the next three years of funding is decided, projected revenue from advertising is falling. In the corporate plan, income from advertising and sponsorship was projected to be $86.6 million in 2010–11. In answers to questions in Senate estimates last November, Brown admitted that this had now fallen to $84.6 million, with similar cuts in projections for future years. Industry gossip suggests the situation has worsened since that admission. Now SBS must turn with even greater urgency to government at a time when, commentators already claim, we will be seeing a horror budget. So why was Michael Ebeid chosen to replace Shaun Brown?

Skrzynski makes it clear that part of the reason was Ebeid’s association with the successful funding submission strategy of the ABC. Ebeid, he admits, is not primarily a content man, but SBS already employs many talented producers and enablers of content. What it wants from Ebeid is leadership and strategic thinking, particularly in relations with government. “We need to make sure that it is clear and visible to government how SBS’s interests and the national interest align,” he says.

Today, says Skrzynski, there are twice as many people in Australia born overseas and from non-English-speaking backgrounds as there were when SBS was founded. The job of integrating them has become more complicated as the mix has moved from Europe to Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Australia is in stiff competition with other OECD countries for skilled migrants. This competition will become all the more desperate as the population ages. There is also competition for international students, who have become vital to our higher education sector. SBS, he argues, is part of the infrastructure that makes Australia attractive, and that can keep us educated, tolerant, and in conversation with and across our diverse community.

The word around the traps is that, while Ebeid is “capable” and “pleasant”, he falls a long way short of ABC boss Mark Scott’s strategic nous and communication skills. “Success has many fathers,” one of those involved said, when told that Ebeid owed his new position partly to the perceived success of ABC’s strategy. But there are also plenty who speak well of him. Foxtel boss Kim Williams describes him as “an effective, thoughtful and strong individual”, while acknowledging that SBS’s hybrid model is a “centrepiece of difficulty”. And there are those who point out that Scott, too, was described as bland by many people before he came into his own at ABC.

Whatever Ebeid’s strategic qualifications, he has few runs on the board as a communicator. After ten days of trying, SBS was unable to organise an interview with him for this article. Ebeid, to be sure, was overseas on a break prior to taking up the job but he could not be made available by telephone or Skype. It doesn’t bode well for his role as the organisation’s chief communicator.

This year the federal government, not before time, initiated a review of broadcasting regulation in the convergent media age. It is intended to be a root-and-branch review of the relationship between government and media at a time of almost universal change. Within the industry, the convergence review is recognised as a defining event, with the report likely to determine the landscape for media for the first half of this century. It would be strange if the old chestnut of a merger between ABC and SBS didn’t get another run.

ABC gives the impression of liking the idea of having SBS as part of its empire, while not wanting the extra work unless there is more money to come with it. Meanwhile, Aunty’s claim to be able to reflect multicultural Australia is weakened by the lack of diversity in the faces on prime time. Anyone watching ABC’s main news and current events shows could be forgiven for thinking that Australia was still a nation composed of blond or red-headed, blue-eyed Anglo Celts. Skrzynski says that SBS needs to be a separate organisation because of the “unique twist to our charter” – the injunction to bring Australia into conversation with its multicultural self.

All those involved expect the commercial broadcasters to make the case that, given they are faced with competition from internet content providers, falling advertising revenue and increasing costs, they should be released from Australian content quotas. If content quotas are dropped or relaxed, then government intervention will have to switch to the subsidy model, says Skrzynski – meaning more money for the public broadcasters that commission local drama and documentaries.

Within this framework, he says, SBS has a particular place. He mentions a documentary now in production, which brings the conventions of reality television to the asylum seeker issue. In Go Back To Where You Came From, six Australians with deeply differing views towards immigration are plunged into the life of the refugee, undertaking a journey as illegal aliens in Australia. They are deported to East Timor in a fishing boat, and transported to Africa, where they spend a week in the world’s largest refugee camp, along with 400,000 desperate people, theoretically in the ‘queue’ for a better life. This, says Skrzynski, is the essence of the character of SBS – its role as a “catalyst for discussion about what matters in a diverse society today”. That requires, he says, a separate organisation, a separate charter, a particular focus and, yes, more government funding.

In 12 months’ time, when the 2012 budget is handed down, we’ll find out whether the federal government agrees, or whether, through neglect, it decides that conversation either won’t happen, or will happen largely elsewhere.

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.


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